Ready Player One: Which was better – the book or the movie?

Disclaimer: The following post contains spoilers for Ready Player One.

Ever since Steven Spielberg was announced to direct Ready Player One, it was almost written in the stars that the movie would be a success. Its plot, which is heavily hingent on 80s pop culture references, was said to be a poetic match with Spielberg’s portfolio and the director could surely lend his sci-fi expertise.

Sure enough, three weeks after its premiere, it still maintains a 93% good rating on Google, 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and 7.9/10 on IMDB. People have praised it as “ground breaking” and “ingenious”, but let me ask you this – how many of you knew that it was based on a book?

Ready Player One was actually a best-selling novel before it became a best-selling movie. It was first published in 2011 written by Ernest Cline, and if you haven’t read it yet, I strongly urge you to do so! I read the book and watched the movie, and much to my surprise, the two are almost nothing alike. Besides the main premise and structure of the plot, almost everything else was different. Which begs the question: Source material or movie adaptation – which was better?

Generally, I believe movies that are better than their source material (read: Lord of the Rings) are few and far in between, and this is true for a couple of reasons.

ONE: The visual format causes the story and its characters to lose detail; nothing can beat the level of nuance the written word provides.

TWO: Due to marketing reasons, movies tend to cut and skim over important events in the interest of keeping things exciting for the mass audience.

THREE: Movies are more limited by time and budget, and the production team may be compelled to cut corners simply due to business reasons.

Obviously, movie producers are faced with an entirely different set of challenges compared to authors. But that is also where the danger lies. When stories tailored for the written format are transformed into visual experiences, things may become lost in portrayal. At the same time, new meanings can be given to the story that may not have been its original intent. This is exactly what happened with Ready Player One the movie.

A lot of important events ended up getting cut out of the movie, but the biggest change was the sudden emphasis on romance. From a sub-plot that only took up one chapter’s worth of content in the book, it became the driving force behind the movie’s main plot. The original story was a celebration of pop culture and the people who consume it, so to have it put aside as part of the setting, rather than front and centre, was disappointing.

Spielberg’s take on the story also did a poor job in world building and setting up character motives. Besides the long and obvious exposition at the beginning of the movie, there was little else that explained things. Audiences could have used some elaboration on the economic situation of the country, the mechanics of each challenge, and the driving motives behind each character, among others. The lack of information only lowered the stakes throughout the entire movie, even amidst all the explosions and car chases.

The book did infinitely better. It held a level of detail befitting a universe as imaginative and unique as this one. Not only that, there were moments in the book that were more gritty and gave the story a bit more punch. I won’t spoil it too much, but there are major character deaths, at least 2x more challenges that had more to do with Halliday’s  love for gaming and less for his love life, and it made the exploration of his character and the references a lot more in depth.

I couldn’t help but feel like the movie was a lost opportunity in that regard. A huge part of what makes Ready Player One so great is the universe of OASIS and the little details that Halliday programmed into it, but the movie chose to draw more attention to the real world instead. Even though it made for a tighter story arc (especially when you measure it against the standard action film storytelling arc), I think it didn’t do the story of Ready Player One enough justice. There was a lot of potential here and I just can’t believe they didn’t milk it.

But let’s even the playing field a bit – the book isn’t perfect. The first third of it was a pain to get through because it was so packed with exposition, and it only started to gain speed after the second half, which is a long time to wait for something to get interesting. On the other hand, the movie was heart pounding from the get go, with some scenes genuinely catching me mouth agape and in awe. The visual format is absolutely perfect for this story and I would still go back and watch it again, even despite all the grievances I hold towards it.

I suppose the ultimate takeaway here is, whether or not a movie is a faithful adaptation of its source material isn’t actually a measure of its value. Just like how beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the entertainment value of a movie is up to each viewer to decide. My expectations were high after reading the book, so I didn’t think the movie measured up to the movie, but perhaps you have a different opinion!

Did you have other opinions on the movie? What is your general stance on the “source material versus movie adaptation” debate? Are you on my side or the wrong side (wink wonk)? Leave me a comment below, and happy reading!

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